The 'Letters of 1916' project

  • Institution
    Maynooth University
  • Department
    An Foras Feasa: Maynooth University Institute for the Humanities
  • Summary Impact Type
    Public Humanities; Community Engagement; Educational; Memory and Art
  • Research Subject Area(s)
    Digital Humanities, History


'Letters of 1916: A Year in the Life' is Ireland’s first public digital humanities project. Begun in September 2013, this collection includes letters held at institutions in Ireland and abroad alongside those in private collections. There are hundreds of letters connecting thousands of lives and commenting on a myriad of topics including: the Easter Rising, literature and art, the Great War, politics, business, and ordinary life. 'Letters of 1916' adds a new perspective to the events of the period, a confidential and intimate glimpse into early Twentieth Century life in Ireland, as well as how Ireland was viewed abroad.

One of the objectives of 'Letters of 1916' has been to involve the public in the research process, providing them the opportunity of being active contributors to knowledge creation as opposed to passive recipients. This is done through the participatory engagement ethos of the project that actively creates opportunities for engagement, from the online mobilisation of the community of transcribers through social media to in-person engagement at SFI-funded community events which have been held in various locations around Ireland. 

Details of the Impact

The impact of the Letters of 1916 project has been wide-reaching and includes members of the general public, schools, memory institutions and artists interested in the history of Ireland around the time of the 1916 Rising.

Group 1: Members of the Public

Since the project’s inception, the general public has been at its centre with an early tag-line of “created by the public for the public”. Members of the public were invited to contribute to the project in one of two ways: to include their family history in the online collection by uploading  letters held in private collections, or by uncovering the hidden stories of the period by transcribing letters previously contributed by individuals and public institutions.

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) funding in 2015 and 2016 allowed the project team to hold a series of Community Engagement Events in locations around Ireland which introduced both the narratives of the period, as well as the the technology behind the project, to a wide range of individuals, from secondary school students to retirees. 

To celebrate the wide variety of individuals involved in the research process, the project showcases the contribution of members of the public through its Featured Profiles. In 2016, Seamus Callaghy made ‘Transcriber Tales’ video which provides insight into the motivations behind one volunteer transcriber, Fidelma Carroll, participation in the project.

Group 2: Schools

A key component of the 'Letters of 1916' project has been its outreach to secondary school students and teachers. In conjunction with the SFI-funded Community Engagement Events, Transition Year workshops were held in a variety of schools around Ireland. In the workshops, students learned about how a Digital Humanities project like 'Letters of 1916' is created from a technological perspective. They also were able to become part of the research process by  uploading or transcribing letters.

The ‘Rising in Transition’ year project was developed jointly by the Letters of 1916 project and the Military Archives.  The project provides 1916-themed lesson plans for transition year students and is available here.

The lesson plans predominantly utilise the primary sources of the Military Service Pensions Collection, the Letters of 1916 project and the Bureau of Military History which are essential sources in developing an understanding of the revolutionary period and 1916.

The lesson plans were developed during a collaborative workshop attended by teachers, historians, archivists, digital humanists, Department of Education & Skills inspectors, interns alongside the staff of the 1916 letters project team and Military Archives staff.  The wide and varied range of skills and experience helped to develop an important and creative resource for teachers and students alike on themes as varied as Women in 1916, The Complexity of Loyalty, and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

Group 3: Memory Institutions

The 'Letters of 1916' project has images of letters and photographs from over forty institutions. These include collections from the National Library of Ireland, The National Archives of Ireland and The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

The project was also instrumental in providing an online presence for archives with smaller collections of 1916-related material who would not have otherwise been able to have their collections be part of a national conversation. Damien Burke, archivist with the Irish Jesuit Archives, eloquently writes about this collaboration: 

The Irish Jesuit Archives doesn’t have a physical exhibition space; therefore, contributing to the ‘Letters of 1916’ project provided the archives with a digital platform to showcase previously unseen material.

The ‘Letters of 1916’ project has led to a democratisation of access to archives. This has empowered the public to unmask and investigate letters which have remained hidden for a century.

Group 4: Artists

A number of artists have drawn inspiration from the 'Letters of 1916' project. These include Genevieve Harden whose own family letter inspired her to produce a piece of work about 1916 letters as part of her Masters in Socially Engaged Art in the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) and composer Ben Hanlon who used Great War letters from the collection to create a musical composition which was performed in St Ann's Church on Dawson Street in 2017.

Artist Geraldine O’Sullivan used letters from the 'Letters of 1916' resource as a starting point for her exhibition of lifescape collages entitled  “16 Letters” which went on display in New York and Cork in 2016. As Geraldine writes: 

'The letters sent to, from and within Ireland give a sense of profound context to the extraordinary and ordinary historical events of this time. The lifescapes portray the personal and subjective written testimonies of the writers. Within the wider context of contemporary events of this pivotal period in Irish history the lifescapes transform the ordinary everyday banalities of life into multilayered images'. 

The resource has also been used as a teaching tool, both in Irish universities and further afield such as Albany, New York where students at Siena College were able to engage with historical primary sources via the Letters of 1916 project. 



Selected Research References


‘Notes from the Transcription Desk: Visualising Public Engagement’. Susan Schreibman,  Vinayak Das Gupta and Neale Rooney. English Studies (July 2017). DOI: 10.1080/0013838X.2017.1333754


Discover Letters of 1916, Science Foundation Ireland (2016)

Discover Letters of 1916, Science Foundation Ireland (2015)

Department of Education Letters of 1916 Teachers Workshop (2015)

Teachers Workshop for Letters 1916, New Foundations Grant, Irish Research Council, (2015)

Letters of 1916, Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht (2014)

Documents of Life: War and Epistolary Selves, New Foundations Grant, Irish Research Council (2014)

European Researcher’s Night event funding (2013)

Digital Scholarly Editions Training Network (DIXiT), Marie Curie Initial Training Network (2013)

Digital Repository of Ireland Demonstrator Project. Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions 5 (2010)